BY PAUL DOW
These structure gloves are terrible. Why doesn’t the department buy us better ones? I can’t work with these stupid gloves on.”
How many times have you heard this before? At your last fire, you might even have had the same thoughts yourself. The fact is that many of us have difficulty operating basic tools and equipment while wearing our structure gloves. Even our personal protective equipment and the SCBA on our back can be difficult to manipulate while wearing these thick, large gloves. But, is the real problem with the gloves? Or, is it a training issue? The truth is that, with training, anyone can operate with a high level of proficiency while wearing the most cumbersome structure gloves.
Regardless of what others may say, wearing gloves that do not meet the requirements of NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensemble for Structural Fire Fighting, inside a structure fire is not something up for debate. Only NFPA-compliant structure gloves will provide the required level of protection needed in a fire. Even though some firefighters have operated with “leather work gloves” inside fires and have not been burned doesn’t mean it is a safe practice. These firefighters have just been lucky. They operate with these lighter, thinner gloves because it is easier than training with their structure gloves. It is a simple matter of choosing between what is right and what is easy. Like anything else, the more you practice, the better you will get at working with these gloves.
Most firefighters won’t argue the fact that if you don’t train for real-life situations, your performance will suffer when those situations arise. Being proficient with the equipment we trust our lives with is essential in our line of work. Firefighters are always training to improve their skills. But, it is the way that we train that has made it difficult for some of us to develop a high level of proficiency when it really counts.
Think about it: When was the last time you practiced putting on your PPE and SCBA? When you did it, were you wearing your structure gloves? Probably not. Most of us train to don our PPE and SCBA without gloves. If you calculated all of the hours spent putting on your PPE and SCBA, tying knots, and working with hand tools, for how many of those hours were you wearing your structure gloves? Some firefighters store tools in their pockets and never even try to remove them with their structure gloves on. Yet, in situations when we can’t remove our structure gloves (high-heat conditions), do we hope to be capable of the same proficiency as when we aren’t wearing them? Good luck! How many times have you stretched a handline, forced a door, or completed any operation on the fireground without the protection of your structure gloves? Firefighters do it all the time. They do it because of poor training habits.
BENEFITS OF TRAINING WHILE WEARING GLOVES
The benefits of training with structure gloves on cannot be overstated. Our department realized this when one of our probationary firefighters was injured at a fire.
During a residential structure fire, this probationary firefighter responded with an engine company assigned as the initial attack team. Before this firefighter began stretching the 13/4-inch attack line to the front door, he made sure he donned his turnouts, hood, helmet, and SCBA-but not his structure gloves. With the attack line in position, he kneeled on the ground four to five feet from the front door and began to quickly don his face piece, pull his hood over his head, put his helmet on, adjust the chinstrap, connect his face piece-mounted regulator, and finally put on his structure gloves. While he was donning his structure gloves, members of his crew forced open the front door, allowing it to swing open uncontrollably (another training issue). When the door opened, a massive amount of heat and steam issued from the structure. Unfortunately, he was still donning his gloves (one glove was one-third of the way on; the other was still on the ground) when he was struck by the intense heat. The probationary firefighter felt a stinging sensation on his hands but still managed to put on his gloves. After the fire was knocked down, he advised his officer of his injuries. Without the protection of his structure gloves, he sustained second-degree burns to the exposed skin on both of his hands.
Donning an SCBA face piece outside a structure in this manner is common practice for a lot of firefighters. Articles have even been published in fire service magazines about where to place your structure gloves while donning your SCBA face piece, hood, and helmet. Of course, the best place to put your structure gloves is ON YOUR HANDS.
This firefighter’s injury was directly related to several factors, including the following: donning PPE in an improper position, poor forcible entry techniques, and poor communication before forcible entry was made. All of these are basic fundamental skills taught at our fire academy but were overlooked during the fire. They were all identified by the department’s safety office, and appropriate action was taken. The disturbing issue for the fire academy was that we discovered that this probationary firefighter was donning his SCBA and PPE exactly as he was trained to do. This prompted members of the fire academy to review the way in which firefighters are trained to don their PPE and SCBA.
In the Albuquerque, NM, Fire Department, we send each one of our cadets through a 16-week Training Academy. On the second day, they are instructed on how to don PPE and an SCBA. All cadets must don their SCBA in under 45 seconds. To begin, cadets will have on their turnout boots, pants, hood, and jacket. The SCBA, face piece, structure helmet, and gloves are positioned in front of them. On the instructor’s order, they turn on the SCBA air cylinder, check the pressure gauges, don the SCBA, adjust the shoulder straps, connect the waist belt, adjust the waist straps, don the face piece, check for a proper seal, position the hood over their head, don the helmet, adjust the chinstrap, connect the face piece-mounted regulator (all without gloves on), and finally don their structure gloves.
For the next 16 weeks, they will practice this same routine to ensure they will meet the department’s minimum standard for donning an SCBA. By “programming” our firefighters to don their PPE and SCBA this way, we created a serious problem. As a whole, our firefighters had difficulty working with their structure gloves on. Because firefighters were trained to don their PPE and SCBA without wearing their structure gloves, most have never even attempted it with structure gloves on.
The probationary firefighter who was burned had never practiced and was unable to don his PPE and SCBA while wearing his structure gloves. Had he been trained to wear them while donning his equipment, he would not have received burns to his hands and possibly could have avoided an injury.
What if he or any other members of our department needed to adjust their PPE or SCBA in a fire? If they fall through a floor or are involved in a collapse, their SCBA and PPE might be knocked out of position. Since they weren’t adequately trained to work with their structure gloves on, most would have a difficult time adjusting their equipment. These firefighters might pull their structure gloves off and suffer severe burns or worse.
Our department was not alone in not having our members train with structure gloves on. Every Firefighter I textbook we referenced demonstrated donning PPE and SCBAs without structure gloves on. Some never even referenced tying knots, accessing equipment in your pocket, or developing any level of proficiency while wearing structure gloves. Worse yet, we found a Firefighter I Skill Sheet titled “Donning Breathing Apparatus” that doesn’t even require firefighters to wear structure gloves, even after they have donned an SCBA! For years we had trained our firefighters to don PPE and SCBA as quickly as possible, never thinking of the damage we were doing. Unfortunately, we are not alone in our poor training habits, but we can do something about it.
During this year’s training, all of our members are required to complete drills with their structure gloves on at all times. To improve their skills, they will don and doff their PPE and SCBA and perform other tasks while wearing structure gloves. During this new training, most have found it frustrating at first to “re-program” and work while wearing structure gloves. By the end of a full day’s training, most have practiced it enough to feel confident in their structure gloves and recognize the need to stay proficient.
Our future cadets will now be trained to don PPE and SCBAs with structure gloves on at all times. This way we will begin “programming” them for success right away. Operating an SCBA, a portable radio, a flashlight, and wire cutters, as well as tying off search ropes, become more complicated while wearing structure gloves. By practicing like we play, we are better preparing our members to function on the fireground. If your department’s training habits are like ours used to be, then you need to reevaluate them. Structure gloves are going to be thick and bulky no matter what they cost or who manufactures them. Firefighters need to get used to it and learn that it’s not the gloves that are the problem, it’s us.